My book, Ballina Boy, a child’s odyssey though the 1950s, reveals how medicine has changed since my late father, Lucius was a country GP.
The book opens in 1951 with the untimely death of my grandmother from a hypertensive stroke as there was no effective treatment then for “blood pressure”. The year I was born (1951) saw the biggest poliomyelitis epidemic in our history and my mother who was called in to help caught polio. The Salk vaccine was yet a dream and as result kids in steel callipers and iron lungs were common. The following year she was nearly killed when a tractor accident when a disc plough ran over her. The only antibiotics were penicillin and sulpha and many people died of tetanus. Despite the staff shortages, nurses were forbidden to work once they married.
As a second year intern my father worked at Willoburn, near Toowoomba, a hospital for the insane and psychotically depressed where s hock treatment and rest were the only treatments with the first anti-psychotic, Largactil appearing in 1955. In 1949 that John Cade in Melbourne first described lithium for bipolar disorder.
In the year I was born, a seminal observation was made by some TB doctors at Staten Island, New York, that depressed TB patients on Isoniazid became happier due to a fortuitous property of the drug; MAO-inhibition and which spawned the first antidepressants in the fifties.
One day when swimming with my father, I nearly drowned only to be resuscitated by a life-saver using the Sylvester-Broche method as CPR was not invented. Sometimes my father would take me on ward rounds at the Ballina Hospital and remember him developing his x-rays in the eerie orange of the dark room, the smell of hypo and solvents, and the wet ghostly film hanging from stainless steel pegs to dry.
When he considered moving to Ballina he was daunted by the dazzling array of surgical procedures done by his predecessor in the days when the GP did midwifery, abdominal surgery, managed most fractures, and “tonsils and adenoids” were a right of passage of nearly every kid in town and he also did anaesthetics with ether and a Schimmelbusch mask. His surgery was like a chemistry lab; test-tubes for boiling urine for protein, testing for sugar with tablets that changed colour, a haemoglobinometer with coloured glass inserts, a tube for ESR’s, a microscope and slides for micro-urines, plaster of Paris and plaster shears, bottles for pathology specimens, stomach pumps, kidney trays, ear syringes and so it went on. His syringes were stainless steel and glass, wrapped in huckaback. He resharpened his needles and kept catgut in butter dishes of blue Zephrin (benzylconium chloride). His steriliser was a cantilevered boiler. He did not have a fancy ECG machine as heart attacks were then diagnosed clinically and by a rise in WCC and ESR which he did himself.
Pregnancy was diagnosed with urine on toads and pre-eclampsia by boiling urine with a metho burner and a test tube to which acetic acid was added. Asthma attacks were treated by subcutaneous adrenaline “a minim a minute”. Most measurements were in Imperial with drugs in grains eg of phenobarb and ounces of Ipecac and instead of “mls” he spoke in “cc’s”. Drug company reps were well regarded as they brought with them medical advances and news from the big smoke. He did night surgery on week nights after dinner, had no after hours locum service and had no appointment system. At night my mother made swabs of cottonwool and thin layers of gauze which went in the steriliser and then stored in large jars with steel lids. Mum patched rubber surgical gloves, covered them inside and out with talc and sterilised them for reuse. AIDS was unheard of. Our lounge room was a “spill over” bay from the attached surgery and thus my medical apprenticeship started in pre-school.
As there was no Medicare, he was often paid in kind; a mud crab, a quart of cream which Mum churned into butter, some freshly caught fish or some prawns. The doctor-patient bond was close, the doctor greatly valued as he was the bastion beyond which was death. Every child ran the gauntlet of viral exanthems, febrile convulsions were common and just called “convulsions”. Rheumatic fever laid up many a child in bed for months only to result in an early death from a stenosed valve and nearly everyone knew someone who had died from TB. Childhood had more freedom, people and life were tougher. We had less material stuff but more simple riches and were arguably happier. For a happy adventure through childhood please read Ballina Boy (www.ballinaboy.com). Its darker moments are illuminated by black humour and there are numerous illustrations and photographs.